WARRANT OFFICER MICHAEL DENMAN
A Company, 4th Brigade Special Troops Battalion
3rd Armored Brigade Combat Team
1st Armored Division
Fort Bliss, Texas
During the seventh month of my scheduled 12-month deployment to Sharana, Afghanistan, in 2009 as a Shadow unmanned aircraft system operator, we heard we might be extended to 15 months. Obviously, that’s not what we wanted to hear. Everybody had been working hard during the deployment with round-the-clock operations consisting of two 12-hour shifts. Our only time off came on the days we were not flying due to weather, but we still had to be present for duty. To make matters worse, we were undermanned and maintenance personnel were becoming very tired and complacent with their duties.
A very dangerous part of the maintenance personnel’s job is the launch and recovery of the Shadow. This incident occurred during the recovery of an aircraft where complacency played a contributing factor and the crew chief was not following the proper procedures. This accident could have been avoided and will be a lesson I share with all future crew chiefs. Fortunately, there were no fatalities in this accident, but an individual was severely injured. Here’s what happened.
When a Shadow is landing, the operator (pilot) controlling the aircraft monitors a closing window that shows the aircraft’s airspeed and altitude. As the aircraft comes in for landing, the operator reports to the crew chief on certain heights above ground, and the crew chief is trained to be able to tell if the aircraft is coming in correctly and on the centerline of the runway. During this time, the crew chief will stand in the middle of the runway, monitoring the aircraft on approach. If the aircraft does not look good coming in on the approach, the crew chief will call for a wave-off and the operator will attempt another landing approach.
In this instance, everything went OK and the crew chief was preparing for the aircraft to land. He followed procedures and began walking off to the side of the runway to stand clear of the aircraft landing path. The crew chief is then supposed to stay close by to stop the aircraft after it hits the landing gear straps. By stop, I mean the aircraft is almost stopped, but the landing gear is pulling it backward so the crew chief physically secures it.
In this accident, the crew chief was standing just off the runway. When the aircraft landed, it pulled out the landing gear straps as it is supposed to do, but they caught the crew chief’s feet. The aircraft is designed to land at about 60 knots and pull the landing gear out quickly and with significant force. When it caught the crew chief’s feet, he was flipped into the air and landed on his head.
The crew chief was rushed to the medical facility on the forward operating base and treated for the cuts and bruises on his head. He could not remember what had happened or the past few days. He continued to get headaches after the deployment and was removed from crew chief duties. Eventually, the head trauma caused him to have more and more medical issues until the doctors finally recommended a relief of duty.
This accident shows that complacency can happen to anyone and everyone. It does not matter what military occupational specialty is. If this crew chief had followed proper standard operating procedures, as well as the technical manual that explained the requirement to stay out of the way of the aircraft and landing gear, this accident could have been avoided.